I came across a very strange urban legend recently. One of my partner’s aunt’s melon patches was destroyed by voles but these were no ordinary critters — they came from the sky. Or at least they were delivered into her melon patch from the sky, from an airplane to be precise. As I did a bit of digging around (I’m speaking figuratively; the only ones really doing the digging were the voles!) I found out that the belief that voles are being released into the wild from airplanes is quite widespread among farmers in the Castile region of Spain.
The idea that voles are being dropped from airplanes is obviously ridiculous. Even if chucked out of a low-flying crop duster it is impossible that a vole would survive the subsequent impact and the idea that the voles might be wearing a parachute or packaged in some sort of protective box or crate stretches credibility beyond breaking point. But there must be some reason why people are so willing to suspend their disbelief in the case of these flying voles. Some background is needed.
Up until the 1980s the vole (Microtus arvalis) was not common in the wheatfields of Castile. Its territory was confined to the foothills of the Cantabrian Range, which separates Castile from the Bay of Biscay. Then, for reasons probably to do with changing agricultural practices (increased use of pesticides, more extensive irrigation, the cultivation of alfalfa) the vole began to appear in larger and larger numbers, until every four or five years there would be a plague of these tiny rodents (there seems to be a correlation between mild winters and high numbers of voles). The last plague was in 2008 and there’s talk of this summer seeing another superabundance of voles.
Repeated attempts to explain to farmers and farming organisations that plagues generally only occur in the context of an ecosystem with severely reduced biodiversity seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Instead of curtailing their use of pesticides and embracing measures to repopulate Castile with the voles’ natural enemies (owls, eagles, falcons, storks, ferrets and foxes), the farming community has gone nuclear on the vole. In 2008, a massive programme of burning ditches and fallow land was undertaken and frightening quantities of seeds coated in the anticoagulant rodenticide, bromadiolone, were spread on the fields. Both of these measures are the land management equivalent of shooting yourself in the foot: both reduce biodiversity even further, with bromadiolone having all sorts of knock-on effects on the voles’ predators and burning having catastrophic consequences for the soil’s structure, microflora and fauna.
When the above measures failed to curb the last plague, the blame game began.
“Whose fault is the plague?” asked the farmers.
“Not ours,” they answered. “It’s Theirs.”
“Who are They?”
“The government. The scientists. The environmentalists. The World Wide Fund for Nature. Greenpeace.”
It was everyone’s but their own fault and nothing to do their intensive farming methods. And this is where the urban (rural?) legend has its origins.
Misguided government agencies, scientists from the universities and environmental organisations, the legend goes, are trying to repopulate Castile with eagles, vultures, falcons, the lynx, the wolf, the brown bear and whatnot. So they start at the bottom of the food chain and here is where our wee friend the vole comes in; huge quantities of the animals are artificially bred in secret (and perhaps even underground) government or WWF installations. At night, when everyone is asleep in bed, the voles are packed into airplanes, which silently fly over the Castilian meseta dropping thousand of fertile and rearing-to-go rodents on to an unsuspecting landscape.
The vole plague legend taps into the farmers’ mistrust of both government agencies and the environmentalist movement. It takes the attitude of “we’d be fine if they only left us alone” and runs with it all the way to Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia. The farmers with whom I have spoken refuse to believe that the vole problem is not some out-of-control repopulation scheme. Sadly, they also believe the answer to the vole problem is not a rethinking of the use of chemicals on the land but an opportunity to demonstrate to the greens and officialdom that their meddling is unwelcome.